Viewers’ guide to critiquing movie critics
Where to get film recommendations and why you should take rating sites such as IMDb with a handful of salt. By
What makes you decide to watch a film? Some people will go for it as soon as they hear it features actors they like or a famous director or production company. Sometimes a premise or a trailer is so intriguing that it wins us over immediately. But, often, it’s a recommendation that sways us when we haven’t made up our minds.
I’m not just talking about suggestions from a friend or film reviews in the newspaper. When you click on a film because the Netflix algorithm suggested it to you, that’s a recommendation. When you watch something because you heard that it won an award, or when you Google a film’s IMDb rating – it’s a recommendation. Even a reference to a film by a celebrity you admire is a recommendation of sorts.
It’s uncomfortable to consider how heavily our viewing decisions are influenced by other people’s agendas and opinions.
Film critics are frequently asked about the best source for movie recommendations. The best answer to that question is two more questions: how much effort are you willing to put in, and what kind of person’s opinion do you trust?
Arguably, the most popular sources of movie recommendations are rating sites, particularly the Big Three – Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDb, the latter being the big daddy of the Big Three. The reason they’re so popular is that they require almost no effort. Search for almost any film under the sun and you’ll probably find an IMDb rating on the first search-result page.
Rating sites such as IMDb are often treated as an objective authority, yet few people know how they work and what they’re looking at when they see a 6.9 or 2.5 rating.
You may know that Facebook was originally conceived as a pervy, objectifying way to rate the attractiveness of women. In a way, so was IMDb.
IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) originated from a Usenet posting in 1990 titled, Those Eyes. It was created by a British film fan and computer programmer as a catalogue of actresses with beautiful eyes.
IMDb was created by men for men, and although its function has broadened, that aspect hasn’t. Anyone can submit a rating on IMDb, but, according to an article written by Marcus Beard in 2016 – IMDb analysed: How do Men and Women’s Favourite Films Differ? – the vast majority of its users are male. If you check the ratings breakdown for the top 100 films on IMDb , you’ll see that not a single one has more reviews from women than men.
Take a look at the current top 10 films of all time according to IMDb:
1. The Shawshank Redemption;
2. The Godfather;
3. The Godfather Part 2;
4. The Dark Knight;
5. 12 Angry Men;
6. Schindler’s List;
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
8. Pulp Fiction
9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; and
10. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.
There is clearly a hugely skewed preference in favour of violent films with male protagonists.
According to Beard, romcoms and “chick flicks”, notoriously unpopular with men, get very low ratings, even when they’ve been wildly successful with women.
There have been several incidents of troll groups “bombing” films on IMDb by making fake user accounts and giving 1/10 ratings. Captain Marvel, The Last Jedi and the 2017 sequel of Ghostbusters were all reportedly bombed by male user groups (who were seemingly threatened by female leads in their beloved franchises).
This trend of gender inequality continues on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes gives critic ratings as well as user ratings, and the critic ratings seem marginally less biased in favour of violence and maleness, but their critic community is still dominated by men.
All three sites also employ unusual methods of manipulating their ratings. The more reviews a film receives, the higher up its lists Rotten Tomatoes will bump a film. This is why The Godfather (97% from 133 reviews) is a place ahead of All About Eve (99% from 105 reviews).
Metacritic’s ratings are also based on published critics’ reviews, but it doesn’t disclose which critics it cites, only which publications. Not all critics from the included publications are featured, and of those who are featured, some are given a heavier weighting than others, based purely on Metacritic’s private preferences.
IMDb has an array of algorithms it uses to manipulate ratings. These have not been disclosed to the public.
“Although we accept and consider all votes received by users, not all votes have the same impact [or ‘weight’] on the final rating … we do not disclose the exact method used to generate the rating,” it explains on its website.
If you’re already starting to find rating sites a bit dodgy, wait until you hear who funds them. Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, an American ticketing company that sells movie tickets. Before that, it was owned by Warner Brothers.
Metacritic is owned by Red Ventures, an American Media holding company. Before that, it was owned by CBS.
And IMDb? That belongs to Jeff Bezos. Amazon has owned the rating site since 1998. If you search Amazon titles on IMDb, you’ll notice they have surprisingly high ratings. Research by Cable.co.uk in 2020 found that the average rating of Amazon titles on IMDb was 7.49 out of 10, while their main competitors – Apple TV and Netflix – scored 7.13 and 7.11 respectively.
So should we stop paying attention to rating sites altogether, bite the bullet and exclusively read critics’ reviews? Not necessarily. The key is to know whose rating or review you’re really getting.
When it comes to recreational choices, people are statistically far more likely to follow up on a recommendation from a friend than an expert. It’s not because we think our friends know something that experts don’t, it’s because we know our friends, and what kind of people they are.
If you’re willing to read a full review before choosing to watch a film, that’s definitely your best bet, but you’ll get the most out of it if you know a little about the preferences of the person whose review you’re reading.
If you familiarise yourself with the politics of various publications, the preferences of a few good critics and the biases of rating sites, you will get so much more out of them, and it could save you the trouble of reading full reviews when you don’t have the time.
When you know what you’re looking at, a glance at IndieWire, a Google search of the review headlines of a few familiar papers and a quick look at the IMDb rating could be all you need to get a fairly good sense of whether you’ll enjoy a film.
All that said, if you’re really twisting my arm for a one-size-fits-all source of ratings and recommendations, I would point you to RogerEbert.com, an American film review website that archives reviews and ratings by the famous critic, as well as other critics who Ebert handpicked from around the world before he died in 2013.
Each review and rating is written by a single author so there’s no gerrymandering of rating aggregates or pretences about objectivity.
Once again, to get everything you can out of the treasure trove of a site, you’d need to familiarise yourself with the contributors.
If you can find critics (on any platform) whose tastes you strongly relate to, you’ll have a steady stream of reliable recommendations, but that’s not always possible, nor is it necessary if you’re willing to consider the preferences and agendas of review and rating publications.
A medium of artistic expression, film is subjective by nature. Your ability to acquire reliable recommendations of films quickly and easily will always be determined by your capacity to interpret the biases of whomever is giving you the recommendation.